We all have a happy place. Coordinates that were so perfect, the memory serves as mental refuge for years after we’ve left. I found mine when I floated in the waters of Tonsai Beach, a rock climbing mecca of massive, looming cliffs and slow, salt-drenched tranquility.
Close to Krabi in Thailand, Tonsai sits to the west of the Railay beaches, a short climb through the jungle or walk along the rocks at low tide. It’s a different world entirely when you cross to Railay, all resorts and big flat sands. Tonsai is rougher. There’s not much beach to lounge on here, but in the small strip of wet sand exposed when the water goes out, you can lay under the jagged outcrop and watch the climbers try to figure out the rock.
There’s only one road in town, and just a handful of reggae bars. A massive grey wall lines the road, blocking off land where a new resort is slated to be built. Some days there’s a barge on the beach, bringing in supplies to develop my beautiful Tonsai. “We don’t like this wall,” says red, yellow and green graffiti.
At night, the climbers converge on Sunset Bar. There they sit around a hollowed-out longtail boat and roll spliff after spliff. I sip an apple shake and listen to the conversation about how much Tonsai is changing. “They just rebuilt this bar six months ago. It was Tofi’s dream,” someone says.
Tofi is a charismatic Thai man with a ponytail, a constant smile, and a repertoire of catch phrases. A stranger to no-one, he’s a fixture behind the bar.
That was a year ago, and I hadn’t been able to get Tonsai out of my head. Had they built the resort? Was my happy place no more, manicured to death and overrun with Russian tourists? I needed to go back, so I hopped a flight to Bangkok, caught a night bus to Krabi, and jumped on a longtail boat out of Ao Nang.
Another Brick in the Wall
My feet hit the surf in relief. The trees were still there. They hadn’t brought in fake sand, or built a JW Marriott. I began the trek uphill towards town, past that damn wall. It was still there, but it was no longer just grey concrete. A fancy place called the Tonsai Bay Resort had been built on one side of it, golf carts and green lawns looking laughably out of place.
The community had written their distaste all over the wall that was meant to keep them out. “Yes, they sold Tonsai to the pirates,” said one message. “You are now leaving the capitalistic sector,” said another, as I passed the resort and headed into the jungle.
New bars and restaurants had cropped up, but my favourites were still there; Chill Out Bar, Sabai Sabai, Mama’s Chicken. And there was Tofi, behind the stick at Sunset, just where I’d left him a year ago.
Tofi had been in Tonsai for a decade, ever since someone came to Railay Beach looking for help with the electricity. Unsatisfied working there, he agreed to come along, and he never went back. He opened Sunset Bar three years later. When I asked him about the changes that were happening, he shrugged again. “Slowly, slowly,” he replied.
And it’s true, nothing happens fast in Tonsai. There’s no urgency here, nowhere to be but wherever you are. I sat at Sunset for hours that night, watching the characters come and go. There are no real ‘locals’ here; the beach was discovered by climbers 20 years ago, and most of the Thai people who work here come from the countryside or the islands.
That night, Tofi invited me to his village. I was reluctant to leave Tonsai again so soon, but my curiosity told me I couldn’t say no. The next morning I was in his SUV, on an hour-long ride into middle-of-nowhere Krabi with three other Westerners. Among us was Ian, an Australian climbing instructor who had been coming to Tonsai for the past 10 years. This time, he’d been on the beach for two-and-a-half months, and welcomed this chance to escape the bubble.
We couldn’t have gotten further from it. Tofi took us to a tiny Muslim village that rarely ever sees foreigners, save for the ones he brings from Tonsai. I ate quite possibly the best goat curry of my life, drank a herbal, highly caffeinated tea called jungle juice with Tofi’s uncle, and went night fishing with his brother. There was no running water, no showers, and just a blanket on the floor to sleep on, but we didn’t need anything else.
Back on Tonsai, I thought about all the bartenders and waiters and firespinners, and how every one of them had a hometown outside the bubble, too. There was Mamai, a singer who entertained us every night. Lucky, who ran the ice cream shop next to Sunset Bar. And Mama, who made the best chicken on Tonsai, with the help of her three daughters.
“I’ve watched them grow up,” Ian remarked over a chicken sandwich one night. He’s been watching Tonsai change for years. Lately, he says, less climbers have been coming, and there’s been an influx of ‘flashpackers’, twenty-somethings on a gap year, in search of liquor in buckets.
“I think we have at least two more years before they start building,” he said, as we walked past the walled-off beachfront property opposite the Tonsai Bay Resort. “They’ll bulldoze the rocks and bring in fake sand, like they did in Railay.” The climbing community had tried to stop the development in the beginning, writing up a petition to ‘Save Tonsai’ with tens of thousands of signatures, but it was no use.
I was supposed to leave the next day, but thinking about Tonsai’s tourified future, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Who knew how many times I could come back before it was just another pretty beach in Thailand? Maybe it was the full moon messing with my logic, but I logged onto Sunset’s WiFi and changed my flights like a star-crossed lover. I spent the next couple of days soaking in the salt and sand, baptising myself in the sea and the slow pace of life.
This trip to Tonsai showed me a side I hadn’t thought about the first time I’d stumbled upon it as a wide-eyed backpacker. Visiting Tofi’s village and meeting his family, I saw what was behind the beers I bought at Sunset Bar, and how important it is to consider where I spend my money and who I support with it.
Am I funding some faceless foreign millionaire who put up a resort on a Thai beach, or a local family running a guesthouse? Do I travel for myself, or do I travel to experience a culture other than my own? When it comes to tourism, money speaks louder than words. We may not be able to stop corporate development, but we can put our money back into the local communities that give us such unforgettable experiences.